It’s been five years since the saga of record-setting floods followed by state and federal intervention began to change the face of Gays Mills, pushing the flood-prone village toward higher ground.
On Sunday, August 19, 2007, village firefighters, rescue squad personnel, and volunteers began evacuating residents of Gays Mills floodplain by boat as the sun rose on waters which had risen precipitously during the night. The flood was declared the worst on record shortly thereafter.
The village board responded by meeting with the community as they considered post-flood recovery options for the 46 properties ultimately declared substantially damaged in Gays Mills. By March 27, 2008, the Gays Mills Flood Recovery Committee created by the board had recommended the acquisition and removal of 15 homes and businesses and the flood proofing of 18 additional properties. A series of public meetings had been held to identify those aspects of the village that residents wanted preserved in the recovery efforts.
“Generally, it was chaos immediately after the first flood,” said Maura Otis who was acting as the interim village clerk at the time of the first flood. “The different agencies were struggling just to set up a place to deal with flood victims, to set up facilities and access.”
“It was recovery mode,” said Larry McCarn, the village president at that time, echoing Otis’s sentiments. “Then, we moved into planning mode. At the time, we wanted to make sure the town didn’t just empty out. Some people had already left.”
“It was a lot of learning,” McCarn continued. “You had to work with so many people, so many agencies, finding out what they could do, what their process was.”
But unlike previous years with catastrophic flooding, the Kickapoo River didn’t wait years to repeat its performance.
On June 9, 2008, not quite 10 months later, a flood arrived to eclipse the previous fall’s record-setting performance. It again wreaked devastation on homes and businesses still navigating the tangled route to recovery in Gays Mills.
This time, the flood also bore serious consequences in Soldiers Grove, a village that had escaped the worst of the previous fall’s high waters due to relocation efforts two decades earlier. In 2008, the dike protecting the park built on the site of Soldiers Grove’s former downtown broke. The turbulent waters unearthed the building foundations of earlier days in a field of wreckage.
For Soldiers Grove, the path was relatively clear. Clean up and repair was the order of the day with only a few homes seriously impacted. In Gays Mills, it was another story. The village’s recovery efforts were thrown into disarray.
“Our recovery plans changed considerably after the 2008 flood,” Otis said. “There simply were far fewer people here than after the first flood.”
A team from FEMA spent 90 days in the village to assist in assessing relocation options. By the end of August, the decision to relocate at least a portion of the village was made. Two sites located along Highway 131 on the northern edge of the village were approved in November.
In 2009, the land was purchased and ground broken in October for the future development that would include village offices, the public library, new townhomes, a handful of relocated businesses and more. There were also new homes for some of the homeowners who took buyouts of their floodplain residences.
“I’ve been asked before if I regret what we did, and I still say no,” McCarn said. “We have a great new grocery store. We have relocated homes and I know some of those folks feel a lot safer.”
“It’s not exactly everything you would envision,” McCarn added. “Considering what we’ve had to work with, we’ve come out with a lot. At times, it felt like it was going awful slow. We didn’t make everyone happy, but then you never can.”
Otis experienced the flood as both a village employee and a flood-impacted resident. She and her husband Barry Jensen are among those who chose to elevate their homes and stay in the floodplain.
“We went through the same process as everyone else affected,” Otis said. “You weigh your options, try to make a decision, think about it and reweigh your option, change your mind and then do it all over again. We changed our minds a few times.
“In the end, it was more economically feasible for us to stay,” Otis concluded. “I know that in making the decision to elevate, I am also making the decision to evacuate when it floods again.”
Relocation efforts have not concluded. Several buyouts are still underway that will result in more homes demolished in the floodplain to be replaced by homes built in the new development. Redevelopment efforts to recruit new commercial activity to the north end of town are also continuing.
“We are wrapping up the Mercantile Center project,” said village president Craig Anderson. “We will close on the funeral home soon, and they will have a new building on the north end of town. We are also waiting to hear on a DNR grant to elevate a few more homes.”
Anderson noted that the village is still pursuing trail development funds to link the town to North Crawford Schools and that something similar to connect the north and south ends of town is still to be addressed.